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The Fivedollar Opera

"Confessions of a garage sale junkie"

I grew up going to garage sales. On Saturday mornings, I'd get the newspaper and my mother would pour over the ads and carefully plan out everything we'd do that morning. Organized list in hand--and the classified section of the paper brought along as a backup--we'd get into her old station wagon and drive off in search of treasures and wonders and, um, everyday stuff that we needed like clothes and cups and things to sit on. There was always something to be found--something that someone else had grown tired of or had broken and didn't know how to fix, something that no longer had a place in their lives, but could still add a lot to ours.

We'd go through the list, visiting the sales that were in the areas she thought were the best, the ones that listed things that were likely to be worth buying (especially anyone who listed "furniture"). She'd drive and I'd hold the list and say when and where to turn to get to the next one--it was much more legal that way, what with the pesky age restrictions on driver's licenses and all that.

I learned a lot that way--about furniture, about how to tell what was worth fixing and how to fix it, about all the hard-to-find streets and how to get from one place to another when there are parks and rivers in the way and only a few things go through or even go straight. I learned how to get enough value out of what I did have to spend that I could always turn around and sell whatever I'd bought for more than I'd paid for it--because, often enough, we did have to--so going to the sales like we did wasn't so much spending money as it was just converting it into a different shape for a while. A lot of the time we'd even find something that could be resold for more than we'd paid for everything we bought that day.

I also learned how to fill my house up with junk. At least it's interesting junk...I like to think so, anyway.

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This is the body of an old Ward's Airline radio cabinet (the face for it is up at the top of this page); whoever had it before I spent my five dollars for it had emptied the guts out and covered the insides with bright yellow daisy shelf paper. I removed the shelf paper; I liked the walnut burlwood better.

Five dollars must be a magic number or something; most of the things on this page cost me five dollars, though a few were either a little more or less. Most really good stuff is a lot more expensive than that, even at garage sales, but I run across a few really good deals every season and it does seem that they cluster around the five dollar point.

As the years went by, more people started to go to garage sales. More dealers and resellers would go too, and they'd start hitting the same sales we would hours before the people having them had meant to open, sometimes days before. The sales were picked over before we even got out the door most days. We went less and less and eventually stopped. Eventually, there came a time when I could go shopping at places that were more expensive, though much more predictable, than garage sales.

These all came from garage sales--I bought the two boxed sets a while ago (they're number 004, the "Master Builder Set," and 005, the "Discovery Set"). I always much preferred this kind of set where you just got blocks that you could do anything with instead of a few parts that were designed to be used in one specific application. When Lego Blocks came out with little faces and that sort of thing, it seemed almost sacreligious.

But now Lego's come out with sets like that again in these blue buckets--I think it's great, but it makes me wonder if people these days just don't know what to do with something that doesn't have "incredible exploding-head action!!!" or its own Saturday morning cartoon. Of the seven buckets shown here--which were a dollar or two apiece--only one of them was even opened at all. I wonder if kids unwrap these things, don't see any pictures of anyone being blown up on the box, and just never look at them again. Of course, their parents do the same thing with all the Soloflexes and Ab-Dominators and miscellaneous exercycles and treadmills that everybody has to buy so they can let it sit around unused for a few years before putting it out on the driveway next to the unopened Lego buckets when they have their garage sales.

When I was really young, Legos were made by Samsonite and you could buy bags of floor sweepings from their factory for one dollar per bag. Some of the pieces were broken and you got a bit of dirt and dust mixed in, but I didn't mind. I wish I'd gotten more back then, but I had enough to build this thing.

Granted, if you go to a store, you can get matching bookcases, but I think you can get spoiled when you're used to how furniture was made decades ago, even if it's what the rest of the world is getting rid of today. I can live with scratches and dents, I can fix the parts that are broken or cracked, but I can't turn a piece of vinyl-clad pressboard into hand-carved rosewood; I can't turn a typical modern couch that simply feels flimsy and is clad in some eye-grating fabric that doesn't welcome your touch into something I'd want to share my home with. There are some decent antique stores out there, but you have to do a lot of searching there too before finding the right piece at a reasonable price.

Now, this was quite an adventure to hang--it's so big that the only place I could see it working was up near the top of the back staircase, and balancing on a ladder while trying to get this into position (it's fairly heavy) took a lot longer than I'd expected.

I saw this as I was driving by and I bought it and a bunch of other interesting items from this sale. What amused me the most was that after I'd given the seller his five bucks for this picture, he told me that I "should have gotten there just a few minutes before, because [he'd] just sold someone else this great velvet painting of a bullfighter." Darn. I'm sure I'll find a velvet bullfighter painting at a garage sale someday--but I don't think I'll buy it; the guy who beat me to it this time might be out there still hoping to get a matched set.

I'm much happier to have ended up with this picture instead and I'm sure the other garage sale purchaser is happier giving that bullfighter a good home. So, I think everything worked out for the best.

The table in the middle? Two bucks. The finish is a little old and crackly, but I think that gives it some character and otherwise the finish is intact.

I guess there's something to be said for being able to walk into a bookstore and walk out again with a copy of this-or-that latest bestseller, but a book doesn't need to be new for it to be new to me and a book from a century or two ago sometimes carries with it a little of the lives of the people who'd held it before.

Maybe a whole five dollars was pushing it for a dead phone that was missing most of its guts, but I thought it looked cute. Anyway, it holds message pads and pens inside and has a little shelf for a pad you can write notes on, but I don't think I'll ever be able to make it work as a phone again.

The funny thing is that I've been going to garage sales again for some years now, and though the dealers are still out there, I think I do at least as well as I ever did. I don't look at the paper or make lists or plans ever. Sometimes I think about what I want to find that day, and then off I go and it's always a pleasant surprise when I just happen to wind up at a sale that has what I'd been thinking of. Most of the time, however, this doesn't happen, so I wouldn't suggest trying to get the Weekly World News interested in this phenomenon, but it happens often enough to make for some amusing stories and to keep me that much more entertained.

My favorite thing about this chess set is that I'd woken up that morning with the half-dreaming thought of how I might be able to put together a chess set out of lamp finials and other parts; I'd mentally gone through how to build the pieces, wondered whether I could get them in contrasting colors (antique brass, pewter, bright brass--pick any two), and gotten it pretty much figured out. Instead of finding a box of lamp hardware, when I got into the car and drove until I found a sale, they had this whole chess set, which looked almost exactly like I'd imagined the lamp finial one would, except that this one has more knight-like knights than I'd thought I could build. At two dollars for this rather weighty metal set, it was a lot cheaper than lamp finials and hardware would have been.

I don't have to find what I'm looking for in order to like what I find; plenty of things still lurking out there that I just haven't realized yet that I want--and I think it's worth spending an hour or two once in a while in order to find them.

Even if it does mean that my dusting habits are probably not going to get much better.

The victrola cabinet I bought a long time ago--and, yes, for five dollars. Inside, it's got little compartments for holding steel needles and for disposing of the needles when they wore out. It's got a couple of cute features, including an internal mechanical linkage that so that opening one door causes the other to swing open at the same time.

I bought this dresser a couple of months ago. It looked like it was in pretty sad shape when I first saw it--it had been sitting in the garage, covered with tools and junk for decades, and it had been put together with nails that had come loose and pulled out (probably because of the low humidity here) so it was falling apart and everything from the crossbars to the slats that make up the back to the sides themselves were out of place. The pieces themselves were in great shape, so all I had to do was put them back where they belonged, replace the nails with small wood screws, and work in a lot of furniture oil. I'm pretty sure the mirror is a fair amount younger than the base, but they were both under the same pile of stuff in their garage, so they sold them as a package.

If I had to pick any one item as the most dramatic five-dollar yard sale find, I'd go with this one. The knobs on the drawer aren't the originals and it used to have a glass front for the bookcase side, but the original silvered glass mirror is still intact and everything else is in good shape. I don't have a lot of furniture in oak, but for five dollars, I was willing to make an exception for this piece.

I just got this rug at a yard sale the other day--I saw it rolled up in a pile of household junk and car stuff along the side of their garage and asked if they'd want to sell it. "Why not?" They didn't like the colors anyway, which was why it had ended up in the garage. "How about five dollars?"

I figured for a Karastan wool oriental rug, I could deal with that. There's a stain on the back of it after having been stored in the garage with auto parts, but you'd never see it unless you turned it over and otherwise it's in pristine condition.

The old Karastans--back when they were made by hand--were better, and I've got some of those, but I haven't found any for five dollars yet.

It cost me another five bucks to get the table. I still need to clean it up a little, but it's an interesting piece.

I've gotten two of these so far--and both for five dollars. The pamphlet on the right is a new one (yes, they've started making them again), but the units themselves are old. Claimed to cure everything from baldness to vision problems, The Purple Ray is a small handheld Tesla coil with an assortment of gas discharge tubes whose shapes apparently determine their therapeutic powers.

I can't say that I've seen any evidence that it performs as claimed, but it will kill bugs, burn holes through paper, and light flourescent bulbs if you point it at them (even if the bulbs are still sitting in the package). Hasn't done a thing for my vision, though.

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(oh, and the rack I've got this
stereo on was also five dollars)